Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was an exhilarating if somewhat underappreciated mix of global sounds. Opening night of this year’s festival on the 20th of the month, a Pete Seeger tribute kicked off by none other than Judy Collins, was a mobscene rivaled here in recent years only by the overflow crowd at the 2010 staging of pianist Larry Harlow’s iconic salsa jazz suite, La Raza Latina.
A performance of some rather arch indie classical and contemporary ballet pieces this past Friday drew a smaller and less diverse crowd, but the diversity was back last night in epic force, at least musically speaking. Assembled by the prime movers of Globalfest, the evening had every bit of eclecticism and often delirious energy as their annual January Webster Hall celebration of mostly dance-oriented sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the APAP booking agents’ convention. Originating before the youtube era, the concert gives venue bookers and the public alike a chance to sample party music of pretty much every stripe throughout a series of what are essentially longform auditions. There’s literally something for everyone, as there was all over the Lincoln Center complex last night. Don’t like canned beats? Leave the underground parking garage (where the promoters had cleverly stashed that stuff away) and go to the park out back for a funky Indian jamband, or to the plaza for some Mexican brass music.
Around the corner from the opera hall, Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band M.A.K.U. Soundsystem stole the show, and the crowd from Red Baraat – who were half a block south, in Damrosch Park – with their slinky, moodily triumphant grooves, reaffirming their status as one of New York’s best bands. And they left no doubt that at this point, cumbia has superseded reggae as this era’s default global party music. What’s coolest about cumbia is that a lot of it is pretty creepy, a quality underscored by keyboardist Felipe Quiroz’s sepulchrally tremoloing organ. Bassist/frontman Juan Ospina played bitingly catchy, hypnotically bouncy riffs and sang in tandem with multi-percussionist Liliana Conde, alongside guitar, conga, drums and a punchy two-trombone horn section (joined at the end by an esteemed Colombian tenor saxophonist whose introduction got lost in a flurry of applause). The band’s lyrics, mostly in Spanish, celebrate diversity and global unity in a surprisingly poetic way, without being either trite or saccharine, over loping, undulating minor-key vamps punctuated by animated percussion breaks and menacingly swirly keyboard riffs. One of the casually defiant tracks from the band’s latest vinyl ep, Musica Nunca Muere (The Music Never Dies) pretty much said it all. If the IWW had embraced cumbia instead of marching band music, maybe the Wobblies really would have taken over the world.
The evening’s single best performance – and funniest moment onstage – might have been from New Orleans “Russian mafia band” Debauche. Toward the end of their bristling, boisterous, hourlong set, given the “ten more minutes” sign from the sound booth, they responded by speeding up until they were going doublespeed and then even faster. More bands should do that! Frontman/acoustic guitarist Yegor Romantsov evoked another charismatic Slavic rock bandleader, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, as he made his way through edgy minor-key Russian-language romps about duplicitous women, deals gone bad, a love song reinvented from a lesbian perspective, and a mashup of a Jewish wedding song and a happy-go-lucky Mexican folk tune. Their was a distinct klezmer influence in many of the songs, from a sarcastically swaying hi-de-ho anthem, to a series of bouncily brooding, clarinet-and-violin-fueled shuffles. An attempt to get the heavily Russian crowd to sing along on Bublichki, the opening track on the band’s album Cossacks on Prozac – which would be better titled Cossacks on Coke – met with mixed results. But there was a big crowd down front dancing. And somehow the bull fiddle survived being climbed on by both the the burly guy who was playing it, as well as the coyly energetic woman playing standup bass drum and tambourine.
Sandwiched in between the cumbia and the klezmer rock were an eight-piece edition of Brooklyn’s Banda de los Muertos, who do both original and traditional Sinaloa-style brass music with trombones, horns, trumpets, woodwinds and drums. Most of their set had a breezy, good-natured sway, through a mix of ranchera waltzes, a Los Tigres del Norte cover and Marty Robbins’ El Paso reinvented as a mariachi brass theme. Trumpets and trombones got most of the solos and made the most of them, Ben Holmes and Brian Drye getting the choicest parts. Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos took the music in a strikingly intense, imploring direction with her powerful, angst-fueled, melismatic vocals on a bolero, Te Quiero Tanto, written by the band’s frontman/clarinetist’s aunt. And then Ramos led the group back onto more upbeat turf.
Opening the night in Damrosch Park, Moroccan/Israeli crooner Emil Zrihan delivered an often riveting, impassioned performance worthy of a headliner, backed by his regular accordionist and an inspired pickup band who played seamlessly despite having been assembled at the last minute (the rest of the singer’s band were back in Israel, having been unable to get visas). Zrihan blends sounds from a millenium worth of Andalucian music as well as Sephardic cantorial themes, with an occasional detour toward klezmer or rai. His smartly dynamic, nonchalantly crescendoing take of the classic protest song Ya Rayyeh was well-received by the small but electrified crowd gathered in the shade toward the front of the stage. Zrihan and the accordion slowly jammed their way into many of the numbers, climbing to melismatic peaks that sometimes took on operatic exuberance or angst against a tightly swaying, rhythmically tricky backdrop of acoustic guitar, violin and twin hand drums.
And it was too bad that there weren’t more people in the park to catch Brazilian dub band BaianaSystem. Although a lot of what they had was on tape (or in the mixing board, or coming from somebody’s phone), their slow, slinky pulse made for an aptly nocturnal sendoff to the few who remained, ending the night with fat, tersely emphatic bass, long, ominously chromatic solos from electric guitarra baiana player Robertinho Barreto and rapidfire, reggaeton-style Portuguese lyrics from frontman Russo Passapusso.